This article is available in: French
At the beginning of February, a music video for Love Louder was unveiled: the first song from The Meeps, a virtual band of cute animated animals.
The project is the brainchild of Simon Fuller (who was the manager of The Spice Girls, and created American Idol). It was directed by Olivier Staphylas, a former DreamWorks Animation animator who is now working in France at 2 Oaks Productions, which he co-created with producer Michelle Staphylas. Olivier was kind enough to answer our questions about the making of the music video.
Why did Olivier and Michelle launched their production company, how the music video was created, complex rigs, how animators and the choreographer worked together, rendering challenges: you’ll learn all there is to know about the making of The Meeps – Love Louder!
3DVF: Hello Olivier! We already interviewed you a few years ago when you were working at DreamWorks Animation as an animator, on your work on Puss in Boots and Penguins of Madagascar [Editor’s note: interviews in French].
Since then, you worked on Wish Dragon at Base FX, and you came back in France… On the production side! Can you tell us more about what led Michelle Staphylas and you to create 2 Oaks Productions?
Olivier Staphylas: My wife Michelle and I worked together on animated features such as Wish Dragon, Penguins of Madagascar. But we were located at the end of the pipeline, we received stories and ideas that she had to produce, that I had to animate. We wanted to get involved earlier in the creative process, when new projects are born. We didn’t know much about this, but we were eager to do it, especially since we had our own ideas.
We pitched to Sony Pictures Animation a story taking place in the South of France, they wanted to buy it and to develop it with us. This project is currently being developped as a feature film.
In order to make this official, we created 2 Oaks Productions. The goal is both to produce our own ideas and to provide our services for others, to help them on their projects.
We were then contacted to work on The Meeps. We were tasked with creating the whole universe behind the concept.
The Meeps is based on an orginal idea by Simon Fuller, known among other things as the producer behind the Spice Girls, and the creator of American Idol.
We worked together to create the universe behind The Meeps. The pitch: a virtual band of animals, plush-like characters that can sing and dance!
In a nutshell, 2 Oaks is based on two ideas:
- Our own original ideas of feature films and TV shows. We are currently pitching those ideas in France and abroad.
- We also work for customers such as Netflix on front end projects, visual development, etc.
3DVF: Which challenges did you have to overcome when launching 2 Oaks?
At the beginning, things are a bit slow: people don’t know what the company does, what you are capable of. We relied a lot on word of mouth. The release of The Meeps – Love Louder clearly helped us make a name of ourselves.
3DVF: Let’s dive into the music video. You acted as a creative hub with several studios around you. Can you tell us more about this? Why did you make this choice?
First of all, I should highlight that the goal wasn’t “just” to create a single music video. The characters are ready to be used in other types of content.
There were many steps, this was quite a complitated project to handle this way, as an independent company during the pandemic. It would have been easier for a big animation studio.
We were working with a Thailand-based investor, TnB, with fixed deadlines and and specifications. All of this while satisfying Simon Fuller’s creative ambitions.
After 2 Oaks finished the pre-production (character design, production design, storyboard, choreography, animatic) the studio that had been chosen to work on the animation refused to go further. Basically, they were asked to work on lots of projects at the same time, including from Netflix, and they didn’t have the resources needed to finish the music video.
At first, we were only supposed to work on the pre-production, but given the situation we had to find studios to complete the project and to split the work in a smart way, and give each part to a studio we knew and trusted.
Of course, when you split a project there is more supervision needed, more data to be exchanged, but this was the way to go in order to get to the quality level we had in mind without taking too much time: we had already lost some precious time.
Agora Studios handled the animation, Brazen Animation handled the rest of the production process.
3DVF : As you said earlier, more companies mean more issues when it somes to directing, supervising, producing, etc.
Yes, everything was multiplied.
But the team behind 2 Oaks has been working remotely for almost 10 years: back in 2012 we began working in India on Penguins of Madagascar. This was a cross-site project, which was quite unusual and uncommon at the time. We did the same in China with several studios.
This past experience was quite helpful. The key was to closely monitor the project, to get into the details if needed and to make sure what had been done was good enough before sending it to someone else.
Since we handled the preproduction, since I was the director of the music video and since Michelle and I have an huge animation background really helped us prevent potential issues. Which is also why pre-production was quite intense and complex, we really pushed everything instead of just saying “well, animators will handle this somehow” because we knew that this would create issues or delays.
3DVF: Lots of assets and data had to be exchanged. How did you manage this?
We did a lot of tests during the whole project. And, again, pre-production was pushed further than usual, we even worked on the 3D characters: we began creating the 3D characters. To achieved this, we teamed up with Leo Sánchez Studio in Spain, Leo Sánchez Barbosa being a friend of ours. They handled modeling, rigging, lookdev (surfacing, grooming) during pre-production, which is very unusual, since this is usually considered part of the production itself.
This also means that my animators and myself had already done animation tests, expressions, rendering tests quite early. This allowed us to realize there were rendering issues due to all this fur. We fixed it, and when we gave the data to Brazen and Agora, there were only minor issues left. They just had to tweak the data to fit their pipeline (for example when it comes to folder hierarchy, links between the data and the render engine).
Brazen handled the 3D layout, the rest of the modeling (environement, props). Since Agora handled the animation, they had to plug into Brazen’s pipeline. They’re pros, they’re used to adapting themselves on another company’s pipeline. They had already done so for us, for example, when working on Wish Dragon.
Thanks to a little bit of communication between Brazen and Agora TDs, everything went smoothly.
I supervized Agora’s animation, remotely, thanks to tools such as SyncSketch and Slack. We sat down together 2 or 3 times a week.
Agora would then send the animated files to Brazen, which handled the rendering.
We tried to avoid transferring too much data: we wanted to avoid doing too many renders. We chose to send the data by “chunks”: we only had 9 weeks to complete the animation, wasting time was out of the question.
3DVF: As you said, furry characters can be quite challenging. How did you prevent render times to explode?
So much fur on so many characters, all visible on screen, this would frighten even big studios, that’s a lot of work!
With Leo Sánchez, we really did a high quality look development, so that all the characters would look good in close up shots. But when all the characters were framed together, rendering took way too much time. Brazen and Leo Sánchez Studio optimized the characters to find the right balance, with a lower hair count. This is basically the equivalent of LOD when it comes to 3D geometry, but for fur: we used the best quality where needed, but we also used another version with less hair when characters are further away from the camera, or out of focus.
3DVF: Could you tell us a little bit about the rendering?
We used Arnold as a renderer. When it comes to color management, Leo wanted to use ACES, which is why we adopted it as soon as the characters creation step.
Our production designer, Avner Geller, started working on the colors right from the start of the projects. He created color keys, for example, to avoid any surprise later on.
3DVF: What about compositing?
There wasn’t any major issue. However, we wanted to do something unique. I wanted to get a cinematic look, which is why we used a quite realistic lighting/rendering approach even though our characters are stylized. For example, we used a fake anamorphic look with distorsions and a loss of sharpness on the sides of the picture, a shallow depth of field. We also used a distorted bokeh and played with lens flares. Again, to mimic an anamorphic look. Light sources behind the characters helped create rim lights, lens flares.
We tweaked all of this shot by shot, depending on what worked best.
This is how we managed to create an animation that still feels like a music video, while at the same time creating a more cinematic look.
3DVF: Let’s talk about the animation process. Can you tell us about your collaboration with the choreographer? And was there ever a point where you considered using motion capture instead of keyframe animation?
Motion capture never was on the table: that could have been the case with someone else, but I have a background as a keyframe animator, it wouldn’t make sense for me to use motion capture.
I must say, however, that even as an animator at DreamWorks I had never worked on a choreography. Simon Fuller really wanted what he calls a “performance video”: no narration, just dance and movement.
In other words, there’s no hiding behind acting or humor!
Simon put us in touch with Nicky Andersen, a choreographer who worked with Taylor Swift, Shakira (he even danced with her during the Super Bowl!). He did have some experience in animation since heworked on Encanto for Disney, but this project was much more complicated since there were several characters at the same time, and they’re not humans. Furthermore, animals have a greater freedom of movement.
Basically, we first planned the storyboard, then I gave him the dance sequences as well as visual references: here, something in the style of West Side Story, there dance moves reminiscent of Pharell Williams walking in the street, over there something like Bailando… We really worked like a team.
He looked for 5 dancers, each with a unique style, in order to match each one of them with a character.
Choreographies were shot in Holland. On my end, I gave notes, just like I do on an animation sequence: using SyncSketch, sketches, action lines on the rehearsal videos. Nicky Andersen was quite surprised to receive this kind of feedback!
This allowed them to create the final version of this danse. I then used it to create the animatic of the choreography, then Agora did the animation.
3DVF: Obviously, dancers don’t have the same body shape as CG animals. The characters from the band are closer to plushes than to humans. How did you adapt the dance moves so that they would also work on the CG characters?
During preproduction, my animators and I found the right visual style. Later on, of course, Agora had a key role when transposing these dance moves to our characters.
Sometimes, they had to interpret these movements. For example, a dancer was doing a dance move on his hand, but his dance moves were supposed to be used on the giraffe, which has a very long neck and can’t do this. They therefore kept the dance move… But using the head of the giraffe instead of the hand! It’s really awesome to be working with animators who have a creative mind and don’t hesitate to contribute to the project.
3DVF: You used complex rigs on purpose, in order to be able to re-use these assets in various types of content. But wasn’t this an issue at some point? Heavy rigs can cause performance issues when animating the characters, for example.
That’s a good question! Pre-production was really done as if we were working on characters to be used in an animated feature. We teamed up with Miquel Campos, from mcsGear. He was amazing, he really welcomed us with open arms. I think that was an interesting project for him because these characters are different from what he has worked on in the past.
The main issue we faced was the morphology of our characters. They are all different from each other, with various ears, tails, bellies. Furthermore, some of them have fingers, other have hooves. We created a template, a master rig, that was then tweaked for each character. Then, there was still a lot of work to do: sculpt, blendshapes, in order to fine tune each rig.
Our rigs were indeed a bit heavy, but on the plus side you don’t get any surprise afterwards: you never stumble on a pose, a move that can’t be done. We needed rigs that could handle all we could throw at them, and that was the case!
3DVF: What’s next for The Meeps?
Nothing has been announced yet, but we really hope this project won’t stop there. The music video is a hit on Youtube, wich is awesome.
We’ll discuss with our partners what the next step is.
3DVF: One last question, since we discussed above your background as an animator at DreamWorks. This animation studio is now embracing stylized rendering (Puss in Boots 2, being a good example). What’s your take on this trend?
This is very good news. The industry is evolving, there is some open-mindedness in the animation studios, including in management positions. The rules of animation are evolving, this creates more diverse visual styles and looks.
Of course, the visuals must go hand in hand with the story.
Editor’s note: for more information about Puss in Boots 2 and the use of stylized rendering, watch our video interview alongside director Joel Crawford and producer Mark Swift. They discuss the evolution that took place within the studio, and the impact it had on the way artists work and feel.
3DVF: This trend can be seen in animated features, animated series, but also in student short films from animation schools. Some students choose a visual style very reminiscent of Arcane, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Love Death and Robots.
Other students, on the other hand, create their own visual style for their thesis short film, or add a twist to existing ones.
Indeed, sometimes a trend is mimicked, which can be an issue. When it is done well, however, and when the idea behind it is understood, that can be awesome and unique! That’s what you have to keep in mind.
Editor’s note: If you want to watch student short films using stylized rendering, check out Quit Smoking (from French school ARTFX), or these trailers for (yet unreleased) thesis short films from French school Pôle 3D.
3DVF: And since we’re talking about old DreamWorks projects… We recently went to French digital arts school ESMA Montpellier, in the South of France, and some of their upcoming thesis short films use shots from DreamWorks features as references, including Rise of the Guardians!
That’s great, all of this will bring a new generation of artists with new creative ideas!
3DVF: Olivier, thanks a lot for answering our questions about The Meeps. And to our readers, we’ll keep you updated about upcoming 2 Oaks projects on 3DVF!
For more information
- Did you enjoy this interview? Then don’t forget to follow us on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook!
- 2 Oaks Productions on LinkedIn / their dedicated webpage in our wordwide list of studios.
- You can follow The Meeps on Youtube.
Music video credits:
Directed by Olivier Staphylas
Created by Simon Fuller
Produced by Michelle Jurado Staphylas, Varunee Santa
Executive Producers: Simon Fuller, Jwanwat Ahriyavraromp, Splash Entertainment LLC, Liz Young, Mike Young, Steven Rosen, Bhakbhume Tanta-Nanta, Ekkasitha Chalermrattawongz
Producers: Kim Fuller, Krit Ngaosri
Written & Produced by Emile Ghantous, Lance Tolbert, Sameer Agrawal & Keith Hetrick
Written by: Brandon Bassir
Mixed by Rob Chiarelli
Mastered by Michelle Mancini
Music Supervisor Iain Pirie
Choreography by Nicky Andersen
Assistant Choreographer: Alfa Bebber
Mackenzie – Laura Thanning
Axel – Nicky Andersen
Rafael – Nicklas Milling
Brandon – Luc Boris André
Jazz – Helene Duch Kjaer
Axel: Lamar Morris
Martin: Joshua Jackson
Pre-Production Services Provided by 2 OAKS PRODUCTIONS
Production Designer: Avner Geller
Editor: Olivier Staphylas
Associate Producer: Sumit Verma
Production Coordinator: Nila Sudheendran
Character Designer: Wiebke Rauers
Additional Character Designers: Jorge Capote, Axel de Lafforest
Visual Development Artist: Thomas Lépine, Chloé Dumoulin
Storyboard Artist: Gabriele Pennacchioli, Erik Lechtenberg Moroni
Animators: Ketan Shankar Adhikari, TungChing Neil Chia, Nicolas Chauvelot
3D Character Creation Provided by LEO SANCHEZ STUDIO
CG Character Supervision: Leo Sánchez Barbosa
Producer: Manolo Sanchez
Production Supervisor: Lourdes Villagómez
Additional Design: Franco Spagnolo, Pierre Perifel
Modeling: Juan Solís, Javier Pedreño, Jose Augusto Rodríguez, Daniel Moreno, David Díaz , Luis Gómez Guzmán
Rigging Supervisor: Miquel Campos
Character TDs : Inés Jiménez, María Lodeiro, Juan Muñoz, Ignacio Santalla, Iván Luque
Additional Animation – Raphael Sousa
Grooming: Aritz Berakoetxea, Jonatan Catalan
Surfacing: Patricia Moya
Cloth: Diego Muñoz
Lighting: Eva Mateo, Jorge Martin
3D Tech Support: José María Tejeda
Production Assistant: Character TD – Ellis Rivera
Animation Services Provided by AGORA Studios
Head of Animation (Agora): Jacob Gardner
Lead Animator: Raphaela Burdis
Production Manager: Maria Casas Andreu
Animation: Nathan Brown, Fernando García-Sotoca, TungChing Neil Chia, Stephen Orsini, Eric Drobile, Cesc Pujol Font, Alistair Hopkins, Renato Sena, Fraser Littlejohn, Stalin Ranjith Selvanayagam
Production Studio Services Provided by BRAZEN Animation
VP of Production: Marc Matthews
Executive Producer: Greg Lyons
Production Manager: Zhenya Kolpakova
Production Manager: Andrew Gotham
Digital Supervisor: Connon Carey
Associate Creative Director: Greg Rizzi
Modeling Supervisor: Felipe Bassi
Technical Supervisor: Josh Carey
Lighting Lead: Jessica Hogan
Lighting Lead: Ethan Crossno
Editor: Ahren Shaw
Production Coordinator: Corrine Harrington
Production Coordinator: Adam Uthoff
Production Assistant: Nic Diaz
Additional Crew: Fazil Ahmed, Emily Greenwood, Meghann Robison, Jere Baker, Zane Hedges, Tarkan Sarim, Evan Balster, Doug Hogan, Alessio Sciancalepore, Elizabeth Boyd, Megan Hopper, Nick Shirsty, Jay Chen, Salvador López Jurado, Stim Studio, Jee-Sung Cho, Casey Kreft, Kevin Taylor, Abbie Collins, Sean Langford, Khoi Tran, Dennis Cornetta, Josh Lee, Glen Victor, Quimet Delgado, Will Leonard, Ognjen Vukovic, Josh Delarosa, Abby Leenhouts, Shane Wapskineh, Erin Estep, Scott McCullough, Kenneth Weide, Bryce Gattis, Ashish Nimat, Katie Woods, Marisol Gladding, Chris Osbrink, Sky Young, Felipe Gonzalez, Kunal Parui, Daniel Zinck, Meghan Grayson, Nick Prange
Post Production Services Provided by TITRA STUDIOS
Final Mix: Guillaume Tibi
Color Grading: Grégoire Lesturgie
Mastering: Antony Block, Benoit Lubineau and David Borens
Post Production Manager: François-Pascal Iweins